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June 25, 2020

Martha McPhee

Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes MARTHA MCPHEE—author of the novels Bright Angel Time and Gorgeous Lies—for a discussion of her latest novel, An Elegant Woman. She will be joined in conversation by her sister, acclaimed photographer LAURA MCPHEE.


Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

About Author(s)

Martha McPhee is the author of the novels An Elegant WomanBright Angel TimeGorgeous LiesL’America, and Dear Money. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Gorgeous Lies was a finalist for the National Book Award. She teaches fiction at Hofstra University and lives in New York City.

Laura McPhee earned her BA from Princeton University and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design, and is currently a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She is noted for her stunning large-scale landscapes and portraits of the people who live and work in them. She is the recipient of a number of grants and residencies, including a Fulbright Scholars Fellowship for work in India and Sri Lanka, a New England Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship.